Tim O'Brien in Vietnam
The Author & His Work
Tim O'Brien was born in Austin, MN, a city of about 20,000 (a setting which figures prominently in his novels). When O'Brien was 12, his family, including a younger sister and a brother, moved to Worthington, MN, a place that once billed itself as "the turkey capital of the world." Worthington had a large influence on O’Brien’s imagination and early development as an author. The town is located on Lake Okabena in the western portion of the state and serves as the setting for some of his stories, especially those in the collection titled The Things They Carried.
He earned his BA in Political Science from Macalester College in 1968. That same year he was drafted into the Army and was sent to Vietnam, where he served from 1968 to1970 in 3rd Platoon, A Co., 5th Batt. 46th Inf., as an infantryman. O'Brien's tour of duty was 1969-70. He served in the Americal Division, a platoon that participated in the infamous My Lai Massacre. O'Brien has said that when his unit got to the area around My Lai (referred to as "Pinkville" by
the U.S. forces), "we all wondered why the place was so hostile. We did not know there had
been a massacre there a year earlier. The news about that only came out later, while we were there, and then we knew.”
Upon completing his tour of duty, O'Brien went on to graduate school at Harvard University and received an internship at the Washington Post. His writing career was launched in 1973 with the release of If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, about his war experiences. In this memoir, O'Brien writes: "Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories."
While O' Brien insists it is not his job or his place to discuss the politics of the Vietnam War, he does occasionally let fly. Speaking years later about his upbringing and the war, O'Brien called his hometown "a town that congratulates itself, day after day, on its own ignorance of the world: a town that got us into Vietnam. Uh, the people in that town who sent me to that war, you know, couldn't spell the word 'Hanoi' if you spotted them three vowels.” (www.stg.brown.edu/projects/WritingVietnam/obrien.html)
Contrasting the continuing American search for U.S. MIA/POWs in Vietnam with the reality of the Vietnamese war dead, he calls the American perspective, "A perverse and outrageous double standard. What if things were reversed? What if the Vietnamese were to ask us, or to require us, to locate and identify each of their own MIAs? Numbers alone make it impossible: 100,000 is a conservative estimate. Maybe double that. Maybe triple. From my own sliver of experience — one year at war, one set of eyes — I can testify to the lasting anonymity of a great many Vietnamese dead."
One attribute in O'Brien's work is the blur between fiction and reality; labeled "verisimilitude," his work contains actual details of the situations he experienced; while that is not unusual, his conscious, explicit, and metafictional approach to the distinction between fiction and fact is extraordinary: In the chapter How to Tell a True War Story in The Things They Carried, O'Brien casts a distinction between "story-truth" (the truth of fiction) and "happening-truth" (the truth of fact or occurrence), writing that "story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth." Story truth is emotional truth; thus the feeling created by a fictional story is sometimes truer than what results from reading the facts. Certain sets of stories in The Things They Carried seem to contradict each other, and certain stories are designed to "undo" the suspension of disbelief created in previous stories; for example, Speaking of Courage is followed by Notes, which explains in what ways Speaking of Courage is fictive.
O'Brien received the National Book Award in 1979 for his book Going After Cacciato. His novel In the Lake of the Woods won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction in 1995. His most recent novel is July, July.
O'Brien's papers are housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. O’Brien writes and lives in central Texas, where he raises his young sons and teaches full-time every other year at Texas State University–San Marcos. In alternate years, he teaches several workshops to MFA students in the creative writing program.
Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead.
– Tim O'Brien
If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973)
Northern Lights (1975)
Where Have You Gone Charming Billy? (1975)
Going After Cacciato (1978)
The Nuclear Age (1985)
The Things They Carried (1990)
In the Lake of the Woods (1994)
Tomcat in Love (1998)
July, July (2002)
Juleps in June
Words & Music
Krewe of Libris
The Double Dealer